September 8, 2011 by abbyo
I remember when my fourth-grade class started a unit on the democratic process. We learned about the different branches of government, what they did and how they worked. At the end of the unit, we held an election and voted for a class president. For the rest of the semester, they washed the blackboard, cleaned the erasers and helped the teacher pass out homework papers. It was kind of cool to have all those responsibilities, but it wasn’t necessarily a big deal, and the excitement kind of wore off after a while. The important thing was learning that by voting, we were helping determine the environment of our classroom by making a decision based on what we thought was important, not just the teacher. By voting, we could have influence over what happened in class.
That’s the lesson teachers are trying to get across in Weijun Chen’s documentary “Please Vote for Me,” but I’m pretty sure no American elementary school election has ever had so much riding on it for the candidates as the one in the film’s third-grade classroom. These kids have a full-scale campaign, where they develop propaganda, hold debates, and trash talk each other behind their backs. It’s like a miniature version of the U.S. Presidential elections, but instead of attacking policy, the kids’ barbs are more along the lines of insulting their opponents’ musical skill, or calling someone a “slow eater” (that kind of talk actually happens in congress, too, the representatives just use fancier language).
There are three children involved in the film’s class monitor race: Luo Lei, the incumbent, Cheng Cheng, a chunky little guy with his eyes on the prize, and Xiaofei, a sweet girl whose mother teaches music at the school. Cheng Cheng is the nastiest of the bunch, displaying a disturbing amount of political verve for an eight-year-old. During the talent show portion of the election, he organizes his friends to boo Xaiofei off the stage during her flute performance, making her cry. Then, the little jerk has the nerve to come up to her and apologize on behalf of Luo Lei, telling her that their shared political opponent was the one who masterminded the disturbance, not him. The way he addresses his fellow classmates, and works behind the scenes to sway the voters, you’d think the kid was born to be a politician.
Luo Lei, for his part, bribes his classmates to get their votes. His dad, who helps run Wuhan’s police department, puts together a monorail trip for the class and gives Luo Lei small gifts to hand out at the end of a debate. There are several mentions from both Cheng Cheng and the other kids that Luo Lei, who’s been the class monitor for two years, isn’t the most benevolent of leaders. He hits and punishes kids who talk too much during morning exercises or don’t stand in line. Luo Lei doesn’t deny it either, but instead defends himself by saying that if he wasn’t strict, nobody would listen to him.
The only candidate who seems totally innocent is Xaiofei, who doesn’t make any grand promises or accusations or back room deals. She’s a sweet kid who just wants the honor of being the class monitor. She’s sensitive, and a little shy, which makes her an easy target for Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei. She’s also the one with the least pressure at home, living with her single mother who’s trying to help her, but doesn’t push her or do things for her the way Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei’s parents do.
These pint-sized candidates are so sneaky, and so eager to win, that you’d be forgiven for forgetting they’re only in third grade. Every once in a while, something happens that really makes these kids seem like…well, kids, and it’s kind of jarring, since there are so many other scenes that make them seem creepily mature and cold to each other. The kids are more clever and duplicitous that most American eight-year-olds, and “Please Vote For Me” shows you exactly how these children develop their abilities to plot against each other by showing the kind of education they’re getting at home—with parents coaching them on talking points, encouraging them to list the faults of their opponents (something I’m told is commonplace in China, but would be looked on as discouraging behavior in the U.S.) and bribing their classmates.
That’s another aspect that separates the election in “Please Vote for Me” for a typical American classroom election. This campaign isn’t just a big deal to the kids; it’s also a big deal for their parents, perhaps even more so. Cheng Cheng’s mother makes him practice his singing and speeches every night, and Luo Lei’s dad basically becomes his personal political strategist, giving him ideas that will play to his strengths, and catch the opposition off guard. These parents are like the Chinese version of Little League parents. Their validation as adults appears to be riding on whether or not their kid succeeds.
The film also has several good examples of just how easy it is to influence little kids—one point that proves to be valid across cultures. Once one or two kids start heckling Xaiofei during her performance, they all do it. When the teacher admonishes them for interrupting her, and shows them that they’ve made her cry, they all start weeping uncontrollably (except Cheng Cheng, of course). From one day to the next, the same kid will change their loyalty based solely on who’s been the nicest to them that day—whether it’s Luo Lei giving out goodies in class, or Cheng Cheng reminding them that Luo Lei frequently beats them up for disobeying. It gets really confusing once the winner of the election is declared—the classmates don’t know whether they should be crying in sympathy for the losers, or cheering for the one who succeeded, so they do both.
Early on in “Please Vote for Me,” the children walk into the school building reciting a school chant, which includes the line “We are the successors of Communism!” It’s a line that proves eerily appropriate for the rest of the film, as the director shows us exactly how that new generation of communism is developing, and how it’s slowly being influenced by the democratic process. What we get is a neat little cultural window of a classroom lesson that feels western in outline, but Chinese in execution. “Please Vote for Me” is not only an interesting cross-cultural view of a process that’s commonplace in western culture adapted to eastern culture, but a small glimpse into the future of how that process is interpreted, and will perhaps evolve in the years to come.